We run the rule over the squad picked for the second game of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, against the Blues in Auckland
Ken Owens will captain the British & Irish Lions against the Blues at Eden Park on Wednesday night. The hooker is one of five Wales players in the starting XV, which features the Ospreys half-back pairing of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny at full-back and Justin Tipuric at openside.
“Ken has worked really hard on his recovery and it’s great to have him available,” said Lions coach Warren Gatland. “He has captained the Scarlets and has assumed a leadership role within the camp and it is a great opportunity for him.”
Owens added: “It’s unbelievable. Gats asked me last night and it was a bit of a shock but it’s a huge honour and I didn’t take long to answer. It’s a challenge I’m relishing and I’m looking forward to leading the boys out and putting in a massive performance that the Lions shirt deserves.”
The centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw were in midfield when Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago last year – expect Payne to be leading the defensive line – while there are two Englishman on the wings in Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly who constantly go looking for work.
Owens has Jack McGrath and Dan Cole either side of him in the front row. It’s an English second-row pairing as well in Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes while Tipuric is joined in the back row by James Haskell and CJ Stander.
It’s a strong looking tight five – Owens was the form hooker in the Six Nations, McGrath has impressed for Ireland in the past couple of seasons and Cole is the only man to start all 18 Tests in England’s record winning run. Then there’s the athleticism Lawes and Itoje in the engine room, both players who can also pack down at blindside.
Ball-carrying responsibilities are likely to fall to Stander while Tipuric has the opportunity to prove he can be as much of a nuisance at the breakdown as he is a threat as a link player.
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There are eight All Blacks in the Blues’ starting XV, including Sonny Bill Williams – providing he doesn’t experience any negative effects from training between now and Wednesday as he recovers from a knee injury.
Gatland is well aware of the challenge ahead and the need to improve on Saturday’s showing against the NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. He said: “We are expecting a big crowd at Eden Park. It will be the first of three matches there for us and we know the atmosphere will be outstanding. We are hoping for some good weather and are expecting a tough, fast and open game of rugby.
“We have a few work-ons from last weekend and we know we need to be more clinical. We created some good opportunities against the Barbarians but didn’t see them through and that is something we want to improve on.”
This squad also gives a good indication of who will line up against the Crusaders on Saturday as Gatland has always said that every player will start at least one of the first three matches. The 11 players who haven’t yet been named in a starting line-up are Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams.
Blues v British & Irish Lions, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), Eden Park, live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
Lions starting XV: Leigh Halfpenny; Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Jack McGrath, Ken Owens (capt), Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rory Best; Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Greig Laidlaw, Johnny Sexton, Liam Williams.
Blues starting XV: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams/TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons, Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scrafton, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua.
Replacements: Hame Faiva, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kara Pryor, Sam Nock, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane/Melani Nanai.